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Soloing America's Big Ditch: Open Canoe Style

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So I'm working on scribbling down a bunch of stuff and pulling together this and that and, while I don't want to bore people with long-winded ramblings that probably mean very little to anyone but myself, I'll start putting some of my rougher, unconnected sentences up here. I'm also trying to ease myself back into work, work on a more official piece of writing, get used to hanging out with my wife again, and reinsert myself into central VA. So timelines be damned: I will post when I can. There may also be a small bit of central Virginia language, for which I will apologize to those whom that offends. And then the pieces may seem a little disjointed, and you may have to piece a few things together yourself, but that's just the way I am. Hopefully I'll be able to write something beyond, simply: "Oh my god look at that wave."

But I'm sure there will as well be a whole helluva lot of that. Forgive and forget.

ONE.

About two weeks before I left for the Grand Canyon of the Colorado I started having trouble sleeping. I would lay in the dark beside my wife and watch the illuminated clock across the room march forward across the night. Most of my thoughts were irrational and easily dismissed. You won't forget your boat, I reminded myself. The ranger will sign your permit. Your "handwashing station" is acceptable. You’ve got the necessary skills. Some thoughts were not so easy to drop. Big Bill, when I had finally caught up with him earlier in the year, standing amidst a mountain of boating gear dumping sand from ammo boxes accumulated on a San Juan trip, had called me a fucking idiot. "There," he said. "I said it. You're a fucking idiot. Now I'll be able to sleep at night. Hope you have a good trip." I nodded and looked down and tried to laugh and asked if I could borrow his helicopter signal panels. He told me to get my own.

I would turn to look in the direction of the ceiling before finally turning on my bedside light to once again read Chapter Four: The Killer Colorado. Terry Evans, 26, no lifejacket. Steve Brunette, 16, no lifejacket. Martin Hunsaker, 54, Crystal Rapid, lifejacket. Gene Stott, 54, Crystal Rapid, lifejacket. Norine Abrams, 58, Lava Falls, lifejacket. My wife would put her hand on my shoulder and whisper into my ear. "You’ll be fine," she'd say. "I have not a shred of doubt." Her confidence never waivered.

Three weeks later, near the end of my first day on the river, round about Mile 12, I sat on the Supai sandstone above the river and watched the swirling eddy that took the life of Frank Brown, some 130 years ago. The river sucked him down into its depths forever. Frank Mason Brown, 43, Salt Water Wash (aka Brown’s Riffle), no lifejacket. In the rocks behind me, Peter Hansbrough, one of Brown's boatmen, carved a faded epitaph to commemorate Brown, not realizing six days later, he himself would drown in the roaring twenties, thirteen miles downstream. Peter Hansbrough, Twentyfive Mile Rapid, no lifejacket. There was a convenient sandy camp at Brown's Inscription, and some nice Supai ledges, but I could not stay. The growing canyon walls there seemed too narrow, the water, while emerald green, seemed dark and churning and deep, and the wind had started to blow. Frank Brown's body was never found. The Colorado, they say, does not easily give up her dead.

I fought the wind and swirling water another short distance downstream to Mile 13.2 and made a comfortable, if somewhat unprotected camp on a mound of sand at the terminus of a steep drain. The wind stopped. I studied the wash under which I was perched and hoped the rain required to get that pourover pouring, wouldn’t come. Mile thirteen, the very beginning, and I was already well below the Kaibab and Coconino formations, the layers of which typically form the rims of the canyon. They would continue, over the next week, to climb higher above and move further away from the river. I would continue to descend deeper into the walls and farther back into time. Here in the Supai, across from a nice fin of sandstone projecting out over the water, I was already feeling the squeeze of the walls, the weight of both recent and more ancient, geological history, and of course the growing enormity of the river herself. This was Marble Canyon, a somewhat friendly precursor to the more somber Granite Gorge to come. A warmup. Downstream I knew the walls would grow darker, taller, closer together. But here in Marble the Colorado was an easy, friendly shade of green. In the morning I would pull water directly from the river and pump it through my carbon filter. That would change below the Little Colorado, fifty miles downstream.

For now, and finally, I had driven 2500 miles across America, passed the scrutiny of the check-in ranger, complied with all those rules and regulations, and landed on a tiny bump of sand in the Grand Canyon. I had waved goodbye to my father as he stood on the Navajo Bridge at Mile 4.5, 500 feet above the river, yelling words I could not understand. I had scouted my first Grand Canyon rapid, Badger Creek, Mile 8.0, and the rapid had given me a little punch in the gut. I think the rapids are going to be a little more than I imagined, I wrote. And then, as if as an afterthought: How sweet is that! I was paddling the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in an open canoe, and I was paddling the river alone. Maybe Big Bill is right. Maybe I really am nothing more than a fucking idiot. I ate no dinner and made no hot tea, which would later become my custom: one meal a day with a little hot tea with spiced rum before sleep. Snacks during the day. Instead, on that first night beside the river, I laid back and let my eyes close onto a deep, restful sleep while the water rushed impossibly on, the stars passed like night, the mice worked their magic, and the dead, for the first time in some time, left me happily, insignificantly, blessedly alone.

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View downstream from camp one: GC scale is hard to capture with my limited skills. Note the stern of my boat (yellow float bag visible) at bottom center and that might help. By the way this rapid doesn't even qualify, in the guide book, as a riffle. It's not mentioned. Again, note the boat.
 
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TWO: On Cardenas Camp

Orange helicopter signal panels (3'x8'), cut from Coghlan's emergency tube tent when Big Bill refused to loan me his. Big H., my river mentor, offered the use of his panels, but the tube tent costs about six bucks and it took me about five minutes to cut the panels to size. Air Force signal mirror. Fine mesh food particle strainer. Cutting board PVC groover wrench. I appreciate tools that perform multiple functions, especially when those functions involve seemingly disparate activities. My cutting board groover wrench enabled me to tighten the clean out screw on my poop tube but also served as a cutting board for my onions, jalapenos, smoked sausage, and cheese. It became one of those tools that I would probably enjoy pulling out in mixed company, as if, by opening my groover with it, I’m somehow smearing it with shit. Rather-too-thin stainless collapsible homemade firepan (4.86 lbs!). Eight wingnuts to build firepan. Fire blanket (5'x6').

(Gear spread out in a Flagstaff garage for last minute decisions. Traveling with my father meant the use of his friend's house in Flagstaff the night before my launch, which was fantastic, and enabled me to catch my leaking bleach container.)

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I was standing in the last remaining sunlight at the delta of Cardenas Canyon, mile 71.6, on a sandy beach surrounded and protected by the gnarled mesquite, where I had spent the entire day hiking east and west on the wide open and mostly sun-filled Esplanade Trail, exploring the easy-going, sunburned canyon of Cardenas, visiting and admiring the rock walls of Pueblo ruins, scouting Unkar Rapid through binoculars from Redwall cliffs 200 feet above the river (stay soft right if you want to miss the big waves and subsequent cliffs into which those waves crash), and now, in the final minutes of canyon sunshine, I was re-organizing my bags for an early morning launch into what some consider the most difficult stretch of the river: the Upper Granite Gorge. I was buzzing with anticipation and didn’t want to wait till morning. I wondered how I would sleep.

I never got comfortable wandering the desert in the Grand Canyon, partly because I’ve spent my entire life in the lush, green, forested east, and partly because the desert strikes me as one thing but then another. I should probably say that the desert is one thing but it is also another. All that burnt, sun-bleached, sandy, red, desolate, waterless, inhospitable terrain felt to me like Mars, like a lifeless planet. And upclose and personal, the lifeless planet didn’t strike me as something I would call beautiful. Walking across the rocks between the cacti and sand is downright difficult. On the other hand if you lose the trail--which is all too easy to do on all but the most worn trails--you're probably destroying a hundred years or more worth of growth with every crunching step you take. Turns out all that brown crunchy biological soil crust is alive. (The macrobiotic soil may be hardier than one footstep, but still...) So I wandered the desert trails with great caution, not wanted to cause harm to such a strange planet.

From camp at mile 71.6 I wandered south through sand dunes covered in mesquite and up onto a low bench to the popular and well-worn Esplanade Trail. I headed east and crossed Cardenas Creek--not a drop of water in the creek, but what a torrent must flow when the monsoons come--and wandered toward the great Palisades of the Desert. Later, when the sun crossed westward and hit the Palisades, the cliffs exploded into bands of amethyst and violet and purple and dark reds and I found myself standing atop the sand dunes like a man lost in the 1960s, staring at some great wall of ever-shifting, graduating color that is probably naught but a hallucination of the desert. My mouth gaping open, drool, and as always glad to be alone. To the North, across the wide and muddy river, stood the burnt red bands called the Dox Formation and the majestic Apollo Temple Butte. Behind me rose the enormous Temple of Venus. I walked slowly and didn't go far. I walked simply to walk as there was nowhere I needed to go and, to a young man from the green East, the vista was already revealed. I was growing increasingly nervous about the river to come. I turned around at some point, probably after no more than a mile, and began walking west.

(Exploring Cardenas Creek under the temples of the gods.)

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Unkar Creek Rapid, mile 72.9, begins a thirty mile stretch of river that contains the majority of the Big Eight. These are the rapids that people think of when they think of Grand Canyon. Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine, Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, and Crystal. In the last of the sunlight, toward the end of my day at Cardenas, I was re-distributing weight to loosen my bow, to trim my boat a little more sternward. I wanted my bow to go up and over and be a little lighter. High and dry and off the shoulders of the big ones. And since my dirty bag, my wide, long Watershed bag called the Colorado, fit up under my bow floatation, I was weighing options and moving some items behind me, into my food bag. My orange helicopter signal panels didn't weigh very much.

Nalgene 1/3 full of Bleach. I certainly didn’t want THAT in my food bag. While not required, the ranger at check-in wanted to ensure I was carrying bleach. I was not. In her defense, it’s a fantastic idea, on group trips, to soak all dinnerware in a little bleach in the final rinse of the cleaning cycle to finish off any of those pesky viruses that tend to linger in the water and sand of Grand Canyon. Short of catastrophic trip or body failure, I cannot imagine anything worse than being deathly, virally ill on an extended outdoor trip. Unfortunately, I had dumped my bleach out of a cheap Walmart container and into a toilet after finding the container had leaked on the drive across the country. I despise Walmart. After the ranger suggested my father go find some more bleach (an exchange that I found oddly invasive and unprofessional on the part of the park service: the bleach is not required and my father was not on my list of trip participants), he drove off from Lee’s Ferry and returned half hour later. I have no idea where he found it but the bleach was in a glass mason jar and I suspect he knocked on someone's door. I lost my trusty red Nalgene winter pee bottle to the bleach but in the end it didn’t matter: the temperatures never got all that cold and my zero-degree bag was almost always left open. I came to enjoy my 4:00 AM walk to the river’s edge in which I would stare up at the stars, stare up at the shapes the cliffs made of the sky, check on my boat and do what I came to think of as the most dangerous thing any solo-boater does on a Grand Canyon river trip: pee into the river’s current at night. I soaked my utensils only once during the trip, but later wrote: If that Norovirus is in the sand we all gone get sick. After a week in the canyon I had sand in my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and other, less genteel places. My wife is complaining that our bed is covered in a fine layer of sand. And somehow, she told me yesterday, even the table in our dining room is sandy.

(Unkar Rapid and delta, from roughly 200 feet up. Unkar Rapid is a Grand Canyon SIX. It may not seem like it from this altitude, and it didn't to me. But when I came around the corner and started into the rapid, I said to myself, where did THIS come from?)

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Kitchen tarp for catching hopping jalapeno seeds and stray Ramen Noodle pieces. Hiking boots. MSR 2 liter water bladder. I laid everything neatly out onto the sand beside my boat and took trim stock.

Turns out water becomes sort of important in the desert. Here in the east I’ll often take off for several days in the mountains with nothing but one 32 oz. Nalgene and an ultraviolet pen light to purify creek water. I opted, for my Canyon trip, to pump water through a carbon filter.

I’d spend about 15 minutes pumping water once daily in the morning (you’ve really got to push water through a carbon filter, my Steri-pen burns 32 oz. of water clean in about two minutes), after letting a strange substance called ALUM—hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate—attach to the sand of the Colorado River and drag it to the bottom of my collapsible, 5-liter bucket. (At least I think that’s how it worked. It was weird and I was slightly scared of the stuff, but at the same time fascinated. I would frequently, on my 4:00 AM pee breaks to the river, check on the settling process with a red light. The process struck me as bizarre and slightly cool, like a science experiment.) I could then decanter the cleaner water and pump it through my filter. I got approximately three liters out of my bucket before the sand was stirred up and the water muddy again. The settling process took all night. I’ve read that some people use MORE Alum to settle the water quicker, but I read somewhere the stuff is apparently toxic to humans in high quantities and I therefore used less. I’m not clear about how much Alum I was ingesting. With my MSR bladder and two 32 oz. Nalgenes I found I had a comfortable two days of water for cooking, hot drinks, and drinking. More if I limited my tea and used less water for food. Some nights the whole Alum exercise (which involved only scooping water from the river into my bucket and sprinkling what looked like salt into the water) seemed cumbersome and boorish and I skipped it altogether, stretching my water for another day. It would then take me another two nights to fill my four liter coffers. After settling and pumping, the Colorado River provided tasty water chilled to roughly 50 degrees (F). Of course, it was still a bit gritty. Many side creeks of the Grand Canyon are full of strange minerals and toxic substances and I avoided drawing water from all of them except Deer Creek. The water at Deer Creek Falls was absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t resist pumping a container full to taste. It was delicious.

I opened my Nalgene carefully atop the Redwall cliffs above Unkar Rapid and took a full swallow. Something else I noticed about the desert environment: water tasted just a little bit better than it does back east. Even gritty water. I came to enjoy the simple movements of removing my daypack, opening the top, reaching for my Nalgene, unscrewing the lid, pausing to look around, and slowly pouring a big swallow of water into my mouth, like Keats’ grape. Closing the lid I would look around, thinking I was probably breaking the law, doing something illegal.

On the west side of Cardenas Creek, the Esplanade Trail wraps north around a small, rocky hill southwest of the sand dunes of the campsite, presenting a sweeping view of the river as it bends sharply south below the Temple of Venus, 150 feet below the trail. On the hilltop were some old Pueblo ruins and, on the west side of the hill, as the trail wrapped south to follow the turn of the river, and across an oddly placed drainage ditch that felt almost like a saddle in a mountain range, I came to the Redwall cliffs above the Unkar delta. The sky was wide open above me, the sun was high, and the temples of Venus and Apollo loomed across the river. The Redwall cliffs were deep, dark red and dropped immediately and vertically to the river, two hundred feet below. As I did often on this trip, I blinked several times to clear tears. I thought I might like to sit atop those cliffs and soak this place into my soul for at least a year. Probably longer.

(Cardenas Creek and delta looking east with a view of the Palisades. My first night at Cardenas I got a little rain, and you can just make out the tent and fly tucked into the greenery, center of photo. My camera was a cheap, waterproof, dropproof, sandproof inst-o-matic. It tries. And it survived.)

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Two liter Platypus Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum bladder. Four extra, unused WAG bags. Used WAG bags went into my 6” PVC groover. My groover was 26” long to meet park service regulation for size. (They require 40 cubic inches / day per person, which is quite a bit of room, way more than I needed.) As with many western rivers--and I suppose, many wilderness areas now as more and more people get outside and enjoy them--shit gets packed out. This philosophy (and requirement) makes total sense and is a practice we should all consider, especially in environments like the desert, where the resources necessary to break down human waste are in limited supply. I used a Reliance stool stool, which doubled as my chair and held the WAG bag when I needed to sit beside the river and do my business. Being alone, I set my stool stool prominently on the beaches beside the river and looked out over the water and had absolutely no problems with the process. The WAG bags (I used cheap ones but tested them before the trip!) held three or four deposits and did a great job containing odor. I did air things out when I could but never smelled much of anything once the bags were sealed.

I used a ziplock two gallon trash bag to store my 31-page park service regulation manual and other, accumulated trash. I accumulated very little trash but cleaned up bits and pieces as I came through the canyon. My required extra PFD started out in my Colorado as well, but at some point in the check-in process that cumbersome annoyance may have miraculously slipped back into the trunk of my father’s car. We may never know.

In the end I moved my water and liquor bladders from the bow to my food bag--another, smaller, Watershed called the Yukon--which was double-strapped directly behind my pedestal, and not really far enough toward my stern to do much for trim, which ended up remained mostly level my entire trip. And by the time I laid down for the second time on the sand dunes of Cardenas amidst the mesquite and gigantic rolling river and watched the stars slowly blink on above me, everything was packed in my boat except my pad and sleeping bag, and I needed only pull on my dry suit, stuff my sleeping bag into my NRS Bill’s Bag, attached it to the boat hull directly behind my bow floatation, and paddle downstream toward Hance. Here we go! I wrote in my journal. Nervous.

(Dry stacked dwelling above Cardenas Creek. Still standing from I imagine a few years back.)

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Great stuff. I'm really enjoying this. Interesting to read about your sleepless nights leading up to to the trip juxtaposed with your untroubled sleep the first night actually on the river. Judging by the rapids you're about the run I'm guessing not every night on the river was that relaxing....or maybe they were?

While my trips don't involve anywhere near the danger I have similar feelings. No worries leading up to the trip as I'm too busy preparing but the 2-3 days spent actually driving to the destination I have constant butterflies in my stomach as now my brain has nothing better to do than think about what I'm getting myself into. But it seems the moment I slip the boat into the water and begin the journey all the worries disappear again. The time to worry is over. Now it's time to do.

But jeez, a book dedicating to chronicling the deaths on the exact route you plan to paddle....yeah....I don't know if I could handle that.

That picture of your boat next to the rapid is impressive and I'm glad there was something in the frame to use for scale. Can't imagine what's coming up. Big Bill might have been right.

Alan
 
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I am really enjoying this as well.

I studied the wash under which I was perched and hoped the rain required to get that pourover pouring, wouldn’t come.

I had respect for those dry washes and pour overs from cautionary reading. Then, having eventually seen one go off from heavy rains atop the plateau, not enough respect.

It started in an instant, sounded like a freight train and would have swept anything in its way into the river in a heartbeat.

Nalgene 1/3 full of Bleach. I certainly didn’t want THAT in my food bag. While not required, the ranger at check-in wanted to ensure I was carrying bleach. I was not. In her defense, it’s a fantastic idea, on group trips, to soak all dinnerware in a little bleach in the final rinse of the cleaning cycle to finish off any of those pesky viruses that tend to linger in the water and sand of Grand Canyon.

About the bleach thing. We found powdered bleach in a Moab grocery after searching high and low on the east coast. I agree about cookware hygiene, especially on group trips. Since we were using a group groover we sprinkled a dusting of beach powder atop each fresh poo to help keep the odor down. Sprinkle first, then wipe.



after letting a strange substance called ALUM—hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate—attach to the sand of the Colorado River and drag it to the bottom of my collapsible, 5-liter bucket. (At least I think that’s how it worked. It was weird and I was slightly scared of the stuff, but at the same time fascinated. I would frequently, on my 4:00 AM pee breaks to the river, check on the settling process with a red light. The process struck me as bizarre and slightly cool, like a science experiment.)

About the alum thing. Everyone has their own alum recipe and technique. We carry alum powder, as well as a pre-dissolved solution in a (marked) Nalgene. A Nalgene cap (or two for really silty funk) of that solution poured into a bucket and vigorously swished back and forth for a few minutes worked well. I think the vigorous swishing and frothing is the key; a famous Jeep-named paddler has uber-specific recommendations; swish three minutes to the left, then three minutes to the right and repeat.

It helps a lot of have a dipper for the slit settling bucket; any movement of the bucket stirs up that layer of fine silt on the bottom.

BTW, never fill a collapsible bucket up to the brim. In the slightest wind the side will collapse, and your 3 gallon bucket of settled water will instantly become a pint of concentrated mud solution. Ask me how I know.

On the west side of Cardenas Creek, the Esplanade Trail wraps north around a small, rocky hill southwest of the sand dunes of the campsite, presenting a sweeping view of the river as it bends sharply south below the Temple of Venus, 150 feet below the trail. On the hilltop were some old Pueblo ruins and, on the west side of the hill, as the trail wrapped south to follow the turn of the river, and across an oddly placed drainage ditch that felt almost like a saddle in a mountain range, I came to the Redwall cliffs above the Unkar delta. The sky was wide open above me, the sun was high, and the temples of Venus and Apollo loomed across the river. The Redwall cliffs were deep, dark red and dropped immediately and vertically to the river, two hundred feet below. As I did often on this trip, I blinked several times to clear tears. I thought I might like to sit atop those cliffs and soak this place into my soul for at least a year. Probably longer.

You need to start dreaming up a Beckwith style trip, combining a river permit with a backcountry backpacking permit. Couple days paddling the river, couple days backpacking the canyons, couple days on the river. . . . . .

As with many western rivers--and I suppose, many wilderness areas now as more and more people get outside and enjoy them--shit gets packed out. This philosophy (and requirement) makes total sense and is a practice we should all consider, especially in environments like the desert, where the resources necessary to break down human waste are in limited supply.

I agree. I have started bring my toilet system on other trips, even where waste will break down faster. A heavily used swamp hummock or sandy beach plateau can quickly become a cratered landscape of catholes left behind by the previous occupants. If they even bothered to dig a hole.

Hell, there is a fancy running water bathhouse/toilet on Bear Island at Hammocks Beach. It is a half mile from my preferred campsites there. I have never been within a quarter mile of that thing and never will. My sealed Wag bag toilet system fits easily in my boat and doesn’t stink when closed.

Being alone, I set my stool stool prominently on the beaches beside the river and looked out over the water and had absolutely no problems with the process. The WAG bags (I used cheap ones but tested them before the trip!) held three or four deposits and did a great job containing odor. I did air things out when I could but never smelled much of anything once the bags were sealed.

Even in a group I like having a throne with a view. That may be a near tradition on western rivers. The more onerous edict may be the pee in the river bit. A lot of the sites I have camped are either, A, a long walk from the water, or B, on a steep, difficult to access ledge. I’m not making that trip every time I need to piss, and the in-boat bailer doesn’t stand upright very well in camp.

Us old guys always have a dark of night pisser receptacle for tent use. AKA the daytime urinal that gets emptied once or twice, depending on how much beer is left. What I mean to say is that the urine collection container is a desert medical monitoring device, allowing you to assess your hydration level.

My required extra PFD started out in my Colorado as well, but at some point in the check-in process that cumbersome annoyance may have miraculously slipped back into the trunk of my father’s car. We may never know.

I have carried the extra PFD along every time, which seems kinda stupid since I wear mine while on the river. I guess it could blow away in canyon winds while in camp if left unsecured. More likely on baking temp summer trips folks take theirs off on the flat sections, hence (or hance) the regulation.

An inflatable would be ideal as a spare, but they are not NPS acceptable (and too spendy to boot). I ended up with an REI Outlet inexpensive, no bells or whistles MTI that folds fairly flat.

Keep it coming Skwid. Now I really want to get out west again soon.
 
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Mike, us younger guys keep a late night bottle too, even under just my tarp I don't like to stand up out in the rain, even more so in a tent, I'm not messing with zippers. It's cold out there at night. And, those cheap MTI's, the cheapest one if I recall that I bought for my last girlfriend, are the lightest PFD one can buy. Certainly not comfortable... maybe that's why she left me... well... that and many other reasons.
 
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Mr. Gage:

Sleep in GC is wonderful. It's almost always on sand, like beach sleeping, and I splurged on my weight and carried a Paco Pad, which, if you're unfamiliar with the Paco, is essentially two layers of foam with an air pocket in the middle wrapped in heavy-duty PVC plastic (like raft material and not easily punctured). You can quite literally sleep on rocks with the Paco. Many rafters sit on their Paco pads during the day as they are essentially waterproof and float and they are cumbersome and large to pack away. (I've heard of people running some of the Grand Canyon rapids on Paco Pads.) I rolled mine up everyday and stuffed it down into my Bill's Bag. I bought the smallish pad (I believe they call it a "large"), and it's about an inch thick and very comfortable. But it's weighty (7 lbs!), pricey, and doesn't compress well. If there is a cloud cover (as there was probably 40% of my trip), and you're in a narrow spot, it can be really dark.

Psychologically, I often needed help turning off my brain. I had I believe three nights (I'm at the office and not looking at my notes so I could be off), but I think three nights that kept me tossing a little. A Nankoweap stormy night kept me worried about what would blow away, Upset Rapid, and the insane all-night moonlight-like-day at the camp at Mile 193 all gave me sleep troubles.Oddly enough, the moonlight at camp 193 was so bright and odd that I stayed an extra day to experience it again. That and the fours hours of direct sunlight I got during the day at that camp. (I haven't yet considered why Upset was worrying me, maybe because my brain just likes a little drama and that was the next-to-last of the BIG rapids. There is an enormous hole in Upset that the entire rapid funnels into, but it's easily missed on the right and gave me no trouble until I decided to perch dangerously beside the hole and snap an upclose photo. I quickly abandoned that plan when the hole started sucking me in and, unfortunately, never got the photo.)

Mr. McCrea:

Powdered bleach. Didn't even know there WAS such a thing. I really hated having the liquid bleach with me, I felt like I was carrying a container of sulphuric acid in my pocket (especially after finding it had leaking into one of my bags on the drive out), and had I been given the opportunity, I probably would have dumped it. After my father went through the trouble to drive out and pick some up, I felt obligated, which is exactly what the ranger wanted. The whole bleach incident at Lee's Ferry felt weird and backhanded to me. It's not yet required (I have a feeling it will be soon). But that's why I kept it in my "dirty bag" with fire pan, boots, et al., so if it ate through the lid on the Nalgene it wouldn't destroy anything important (like the park service regulation manual).

My night in Nankoweap I experienced my first stormy, windy, night. And while I strapped all important gear together at night to the boat, hung my drysuit, etc., at Nankoweap, with the wind blowing around and rain spitting, my brain kept presenting semi-irrational images to me: my PFD or float bags or drysuit blowing away (boat and all, maybe), any of which would be a not-so-good thing to happen. So I got up to pee more often than usual that night, checking and re-checking all my lifelines. I can see the park service now: "Your PFD blew away? Good thing we require you to carry an extra." Yea, about that... During the day I wore my PFD all the time. Even on side hikes I would often simply leave it on. Unlike my drysuit, my PFD had pockets.

And yes, even us young bucks carry a pisser for the winter. I don't typically like breaking out of my cocoon when it's really cold, rewarming the bag after re-entry, etc. I use a red Nalgene that I make a big show of before trips with others. On trips with me, avoid the red Nalgene. It may well be full of something you don't want in your mouth.
 
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If there is a cloud cover (as there was probably 40% of my trip), and you're in a narrow spot, it can be really dark.

That and the fours hours of direct sunlight I got during the day at that camp.

I had wondered about that. Deep within the canyon walls, in winter with a low sun and shorter daylight would tend to wear psychologically.

Not that you can always be picky, but a site with good sun exposure in winter, or good shade in hot summer weather, makes a real difference.

Powdered bleach. Didn't even know there WAS such a thing. I really hated having the liquid bleach with me, I felt like I was carrying a container of sulphuric acid in my pocket (especially after finding it had leaking into one of my bags on the drive out), and had I been given the opportunity, I probably would have dumped it. After my father went through the trouble to drive out and pick some up, I felt obligated, which is exactly what the ranger wanted. The whole bleach incident at Lee's Ferry felt weird and backhanded to me. It's not yet required (I have a feeling it will be soon). But that's why I kept it in my "dirty bag" with fire pan, boots, et al., so if it ate through the lid on the Nalgene it wouldn't destroy anything important (like the park service regulation manual).



Yeah, powdered bleach. Whoda thunk it.

https://www.amazon.com/DRK2979646-Chlorine-Bleach-Ounces-DIVERSEY/dp/B00PM7SZC6

The NPS is wily, they kinda hint in the required gear lists that some things “recommended” may be Ranger deemed “required”. They really should recommend a 2 liter dromedary of rum, although I’d suggest Sailor Jerry instead of Captain Morgan.

Bleach is nasty stuff. It will eventually eat most screw-on lid seals, including Nalgenes. One of the most durable small beach containers is an 8 ounce plastic Coca Cola Bottle. Pony sized, and not Diet. That probably tells you something about Coke. The other 5 Coke cans are useful for dissolving pennies, cleaning car battery terminals or making Cuba Libres when you need a sugar rush. The first two are urban myth, but I have great appreciation for carrying the dromedary bag of rum.

My night in Nankoweap I experienced my first stormy, windy, night. And while I strapped all important gear together at night to the boat, hung my drysuit, etc., at Nankoweap, with the wind blowing around and rain spitting, my brain kept presenting semi-irrational images to me: my PFD or float bags or drysuit blowing away (boat and all, maybe), any of which would be a not-so-good thing to happen. So I got up to pee more often than usual that night, checking and re-checking all my lifelines.

I think in-canyon winds are often a surprise to unaccustomed easterners and virgin canyoneers.

I am way the hell down in a deep slot, wind? What wind? Until it begins to funnel into a side canyon camp like a freaking hurricane. Hmmm, that explains how this high sand bench was deposited. It is getting higher by the minute, which I could see if I could open my eyes in this sandstorm.

It is so such a very different venue than paddling riparian river valleys or the Canadian Shield, with its own unique campsite considerations. Coastal bay or shorefront camping translates well, but not completely.

And yes, even us young bucks carry a pisser for the winter. I don't typically like breaking out of my cocoon when it's really cold, rewarming the bag after re-entry, etc. I use a red Nalgene that I make a big show of before trips with others. On trips with me, avoid the red Nalgene. It may well be full of something you don't want in your mouth.

What, no free Poison Control Mr. Yuck sticker on that Nalgene?

https://www.google.com/search?q=mr+...=HfiQWPOJIoLQmAG6raG4CA#imgrc=0PtcQzXyyktyAM:
 
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THREE. Hance

Hance, mile 77.2, represents the psychological crux of your solo canoe trip through Grand Canyon. The big bad mental hump day. Having never seen a Grand Canyon NINE, you're going to want Hance behind you. Like Adam and Eve in the garden standing beneath the tree of knowledge, you're going to want to eat that fruit. Maybe the understanding of a big Grand Canyon rapid will give you no worries, and enable you to relax and enjoy the alien planet of Upper Granite Gorge. Maybe you'll want to come face to face with the understanding that there will be no relaxation for the next hundred miles of river, that you'll be on edge until you run Lava Falls. Or maybe you'll want to test your mettle against what some consider the hardest rapid of the Canyon. But whatever the motivation, you'll want to be done with Hance, or at least facing it down gunslinger western style on the deserted streets at high noon. Because the streets, the river, the campsite, the trail, the canyon itself, will all be deserted. You'll face Hance just like you'll face every big rapid on this trip: alone.

Unlike most of the Grand Canyon rapids, Hance requires that you make a move. And making a move in a loaded boat on big water is not so easy as it sounds. Some say the old left line opens up at high water levels and you can avoid having to move right to left. Some say there is a line of bubbles you can follow for a clean line right down through the pounding center of the rapid. Or was that Lava Falls? You don't really know and now you can't remember. You've never seen the rapid. But when you finally paddle around that gentle bend on a wide pool of open water to the open expanse of Hance Creek entering from the left, and when you hear the roar and see the spray of white dancing below the horizon, and when you tie your boat high above the rapid, not wanting to get too close to the edge, and make your way through the tamarisk and arrow weed and across the leveled, sandy tent sites and scramble down the boulders on the left bank to take a long look at a sweeping band of muddy white that disappears around a long, sweeping bend to the left, the last thing on your mind will be looking for those mystical bubbles down the middle of the rapid. The middle of the rapid will appear to be on the large side, like a storm at sea grown hungry and mean. The middle will look for all the world like no place to take a loaded canoe. The right, from across the river, will look worse. You'll tell yourself that the bubble line of boatmen mythology must have been the ledge hole in Lava. Or was it the hole in Crystal? No matter, in Hance you're going to want to be all the way left by the time you reach that particular stretch of pissed off whitewater. And therein will lay your trouble. You're going to have to enter the rapid on the right, the far right, because the left entrance will be blocked by a jumble of boulders and holes and muddy brown slots. You might briefly mourn the loss of your kayak and wonder why you're paddling a canoe. One particular boulder of gigantic dimensions could be passed on the left, were it not for a pile of wedged sticks reaching out like skeletal fingers from under the water and across the slot. You consider trying to move the strainer. You consider walking. No problem, you say to yourself about entering far right, you've got the length of an entire American football field to cross the river. That is plenty of room. No problem.

(A study in rock: the old Vishnu Shist of the Granite Gorge.)

View attachment vEUf0IWU0O9dUOfYiQqd1mYlls2KWGlVMqizKkYri86xw0Kpd8hoJF_qfEW0n52ZGbvYEPnJSEZ6Od19fCDWSZn5_cY_fnb3YgY6

By this point in your trip down through Grand Canyon, you should know better. From Marble Canyon you've learned a bit about canoeing the Colorado River: many lessons in a short length of miles. You ran a Grand Canyon SEVEN at mile 17.1, House Rock Rapid. And while the hole was big, First Grand Canyon hole! you wrote excitedly, the rapid didn't seem like a monster. The laterals spun your stern as you punched them, surfing you toward the hole, but you got your boat on edge down to the gunnel and ferried hard, felt the wind of the maw and the exhilaration of brushing the edge of something wild and frightening.

You may not be learning anything brand spanking new, at least not to an expert open boater like yourself, but basic principles are getting emphasized in new ways by the strange movement of really big water. You'll say that to yourself from time to time: really big water tends to move in strange ways. And when you finally get the gumption to enter far right at Hance, just missing one of those funny little holes at the top to cut through a series of lateral waves that are larger than you imagined from the left bank and feeding the holes on the right side of Hance, and then begin your diagonal crossing with not near enough ferry angle needed to cross the river in the allotted space; and when you realize your mistake, that you're not going to make the left side, and you straighten out to take on the center line, tucking your body low and pulling your paddle in for what is going to be a big hit, you're going to say that one more time: this is really big water.

In general, you want to follow the fastest water. Seriously, you'll want to follow the fastest water or the current you think you're riding will become part of the maw, suddenly change direction and send you the wrong way: into the cliff, into the hole, into the eddy, into the very middle of whatever feature you're trying to miss. And when you want to cross fast water you're going to need some ferry angle. In Hance, you won't have enough. You'll have assumed, incorrectly, that you could simply point your boat in the general direction of the left bank and carve gingerly across what looks like a bunch of slack water in the top of Hance. You assumed, incorrectly, that there was plenty of space to make the move, plenty of time to avoid the center.

(Upper Granite Gorge through water specked lens.)

View attachment Ogq2hL1geGyJHFLHx53bh-lhXRGq4WoFxK6LA13om-LqU9uZMl4sZthi1xgSqIMxkNHeCN7B9eV46ee8NxlyKOrMUbpBHQVYef9-

The wipeout will not be immediate. The first hit will tip you, almost gently, to your offside. The wrong side. There's a good chance you should have paddled more aggressively on your onside, but there you will sit, oddly enough, halfway flopped, head beneath the surface, surfing the tip top break of a tube wave, a large tube wave. Slightly more aggressive and you might could have cleared the breaking tube. You'll have time enough to consider your position, and whether or not you should have continued golf with your father. You might even now be teeing up on some green and magical course in the sun. You might can roll up, here at mile 77.2 in Hance, which will involve extending your left arm. Forward arm outstretched to your offside. Meh. You at least know better than that. You're getting old, up into your forties, and like to keep your arms close. You decide against that and instead dive down in an effort to continue the roll, shake the boat off the surf, come up on your onside, and hopefully continue down the wave train.

Fortunately, as you force yourself down into the green water your arms are not ripped off. Instead, the deeper current of the wave catches your extended torso, pulls you violently from the boat, yanks the helmet off your head, and spits you like a seed downriver. You surface a few waves downstream in time to see your boat gently right itself and begin chasing you. You look around for your helmet but decide you're probably better off facing the waves that keep breaking over your head. You time your breaths but mostly try not to breathe. It takes you only nanoseconds to remember that your boat is priority number one. Don't let it crush you, but don't lose it. Losing your boat on a solo trip through Grand Canyon is unwise. You've attached fifteen foot painters to both ends. Somehow, you're still gripping your paddle. Muscle memory learned from many years of swimming. The water doesn't strike you as cold, even though it's January and despite your lack of gloves, but you are still crashing through waves, alone, your boat bobbing along behind you, on a winter trip through Grand Canyon. There is a good chance that you are a fucking idiot.

You learned in Marble Canyon to cut waves more or less diagonally in the smaller rapids and try to bounce back and forth between the eddy lines. This seems to help keep water out of your boat and help keep you out of the eddy lines themselves, which are typically five feet wide and full of whirlpools. Of course, you've found this tactic can also backfire and the momentum can send you careening into the eddy line you were trying to avoid. Sometimes the small breaking waves will dump water over your stern when you aren't looking, so you've learned to surf the shoulder of the waves closest to the squeeze, throw your stern around once you get your bow engaged, and, as always, remain anally vigilant about your boat angle. Often that doesn't help but it does give you something to do while running Grand Canyon rapids.

Boat angle seems to have been your problem in Hance. You needed aggressive ferry angle to achieve the left side. The waves have given you a brief respite and you vigorously swim upstream for the boat. You grab the bow, but now you're back in waves, scrambling for the painter, trying not to let the boat clobber your teeth. Somehow the river is dragging you over rocks, which isn't supposed to happen in Grand Canyon: the rocks are supposed to be covered. This is big water, after all. Why are there rocks? You wonder if you brushed your teeth this morning, imagining they feel sandy. Miraculously, after pinballing off some shallow rocks in a quick pirouette and sliding headfirst and helmetless down another series of shallow waves, boat looming above you like some ill-trained and persistent dog, miraculously, you are still holding your paddle, which turns out to be a good thing, since you noticed as you were fumbling for the painter that the spare paddle is also gone. You begin dragging the boat toward the dark granite cliffs that extend vertically from the water’s edge two hundred feet above your head, but stop swimming as your eyes follow the wall all the way up. Might as well save your energy. Noticing a tiny beach of sand some ways off and tucked into the corner of a granite nook, you try to pull yourself in that direction. But there is no way. The current is whisking you along faster than you can hope to swim, and you'll never cross the eddy line. At least you've got hold of your boat and paddle. You look downstream and see nothing but a muddy river flushing between dark cliffs.

(Weird and fluted and very, very old, Vishnu Schist often drops vertically straight down into the river.)

View attachment JXq7Z-ta3DIpBHUQzrUS1HLInhBzOkNm1vXi9q9cUj_YwSduIE8-ZTWwK53tLsXJdehK6aau1y6bCgMJMWuKwtY9x0jDsjhyfv3z

How far have you come? How far will you go? How far till Sockdolager Rapid, mile 79.1, two miles below Hance? You look up and see the blue boat, upright. It's full of dry bags with gear for another two weeks on the river and it's full of water. You orient yourself to the middle of the boat and spring a kicking lunge as high as you can up and out of the water and drape yourself over the canoe, fully expecting to continue rolling with the boat off the other side. But you don't. It's heavy enough to sit flat. You lay spread eagle over the gunnels and slowly bring your legs into the boat, brace with both hands on the gunnels--still gripping death tight on the paddle, and with mild gymnastic oomph you situate yourself back onto the pedestal. And then, as if nothing has happened, there you are: kneeling in the boat floating downstream. You paddle like mad toward another spit of sand on river right, cross an eddy, and bump the bow into a beach. When you jump out the water is up to your waist and you scramble up the sand to emerge, finally, onto dry land. You stand there with your hands on your knees, breathing deeply, holding the bow painter and staring down at your shoes. At least you've still got shoes. Eventually you will compose yourself enough to look back out to the current and wonder about that duo in 1955—Bill Beer and John Daggett—who apparently swam the entire Grand Canyon in rubber suits because they couldn't afford a boat. They were fucking idiots. You wonder if all the big rapids will go this smoothly.

There were other lessons in Marble Canyon. If there is a big smooth green highway of water, use it. Don't get all showy. That new "post" maneuver you're starting to get comfortable with back home? catching the eddy on an offside lean and whipping the boat around slalom style? Good luck with that. Ain't no leaning against no current down that ditch. Play by the rules or you will of a sudden look like you have never been in a canoe before: wobbling and bracing and flopping around like a beached fish, unsure of which way to lean when currents come at you from every direction. You will feel like you've never been in a canoe before. Or you will go for the extended Grand Canyon funky swim.

If you're the type that likes squeezing eddy lines, which you are, playing the conflicting currents, DON'T. Stay out of the mucky swirl or you'll find yourself going nowhere, spinning lazy or terrifying circles, surfing a hole or whirlpool that materializes out of flat water beneath your boat, watching the fast water you should be riding rush by an impossible distance of ten feet away and two feet higher. Again: follow the fastest water, and remember that your boat is fourteen feet long, thirty inches wide, and open, which necessarily dictates that you will feel every hump day bump. Often eddies will be vertically lower than the fast water channel which will form what they call an eddy fence between the two currents, and such eddies will be challenging to escape. A few notorious eddies (Grand Canyon eddies often come with their own names) are very challenging to escape: best to avoid those. And whatever you do, don't catch the eddy behind the rock unless you want to go for the extended Grand Canyon funky surf.

(Rock shapes and sky.)

View attachment wtTu93p2DYoE3TApl_qYFDQ3HDFu-9fWllXzDcSy0girgL0ezzi3Ar8Hz2B4Ugu174TNBuUBb3cdNw9aaQRWrn3ab_7y52O8N-Mb

Your cut-off gallon jug is still floating around in the boat, for which you are grateful, standing on your spit of sand between the black granite walls with the brown river rolling by, and you bail water before reluctantly climbing back in and pulling out into the current. Against the river left wall of granite, you spot the dome of your red helmet bobbing in the water and retrieve it. The GoPro has been recording for 26 minutes. You caught the whole thing on video, which brings a little smile. You escaped with your life, your boat, your paddle, and a carnage video: awesome. You put it on and wonder how it got pulled from your head. Maybe in your excitement about running Hance you forgot to buckle it. Not far downstream your extra paddle is floating in an eddy against the river right wall. You reattach it atop your bow float bag with your bungee-dealy-bob and remind yourself to put a small cam strap on it when you reach camp this evening. Another mile and Sockdologer, mile 79.1, comes roaring and jumping into view and you imagine you should probably look at it, a Grand Canyon SEVEN. But you don't even stop. You loosen your thigh straps and sit up in the boat and crane your neck to see down over the horizon line and the left looks pretty good, right looks bad, everything ends in a big crash of monster waves--nothing new--so down you go, easing center as you ride the narrow muddy tongue down into the waves, nodding at the big holes, getting low for the big hits, cresting and falling, gallon-jug bailing, cresting and falling, over and over, rolling, rolling on a river.
 
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G

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Fortunately, as you force yourself down into the green water your arms are not ripped off. Instead, the deeper current of the wave catches your extended torso, pulls you violently from the boat, yanks the helmet off your head, and spits you like a seed downriver. You surface a few waves downstream in time to see your boat gently right itself and begin chasing you. You look around for your helmet but decide you're probably better off facing the waves that keep breaking over your head. You time your breaths but mostly try not to breathe. It takes you only nanoseconds to remember that your boat is priority number one. Don't let it crush you, but don't lose it.

The waves have given you a brief respite and you vigorously swim upstream for the boat. You grab the bow, but now you're back in waves, scrambling for the painter, trying not to let the boat clobber your teeth. Somehow the river is dragging you over rocks, which isn't supposed to happen in Grand Canyon: the rocks are supposed to be covered.

Noticing a tiny beach of sand some ways off and tucked into the corner of a granite nook, you try to pull yourself in that direction. But there is no way. The current is whisking you along faster than you can hope to swim, and you'll never cross the eddy line. At least you've got hold of your boat and paddle. You look downstream and see nothing but a muddy river flushing between dark cliffs.


How far till Sockdolager Rapid, mile 79.1, two miles below Hance? You look up and see the blue boat, upright. It's full of dry bags with gear for another two weeks on the river and it's full of water. You orient yourself to the middle of the boat and spring a kicking lunge as high as you can up and out of the water and drape yourself over the canoe, fully expecting to continue rolling with the boat off the other side. But you don't. It's heavy enough to sit flat. You lay spread eagle over the gunnels and slowly bring your legs into the boat, brace with both hands on the gunnels--still gripping death tight on the paddle, and with mild gymnastic oomph you situate yourself back onto the pedestal. And then, as if nothing has happened, there you are: kneeling in the boat floating downstream. You paddle like mad toward another spit of sand on river right, cross an eddy, and bump the bow into a beach.

You stand there with your hands on your knees, breathing deeply, holding the bow painter and staring down at your shoes. At least you've still got shoes.

That was as awesome as out-of-boat description as I have ever read.


Your cut-off gallon jug is still floating around in the boat, for which you are grateful
Against the river left wall of granite, you spot the dome of your red helmet bobbing in the water and retrieve it. The GoPro has been recording for 26 minutes. You caught the whole thing on video, which brings a little smile.
Not far downstream your extra paddle is floating in an eddy against the river right wall. You reattach it atop your bow float bag with your bungee-dealy-bob and remind yourself to put a small cam strap on it when you reach camp this evening.

Let’s see:
Got your stolen canoe back
Recovered it mid-canyon
Still had your shoes
Bailer still floating around in boat
Recovered helmet and still-running GoPro
Found the escapee paddle

This cat has 9 lives in recovering gear.

BTW, I pulled out a Grand Canyon river guide. Looking at the contours and rapids information (Hance Rapid, Drop of 30 feet, Sockdolager Rapid, Drop 19 feet, etc) adds to the enjoyment of reading your report.

I am now more than ever curious about when the GoPro disappeared.
 
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I met one of our local Virginia legends, Bob Whaley, on one of our backyard Class III runs one cold afternoon in February. He was 80 at the time, paddling an open boat from a pedestal, and needed help getting his boat from the river to his van. On the river he was as graceful and beautiful as anyone I've ever seen paddling an open boat. Once he stepped up onto dry land he couldn't walk very well and ended up falling down. At the time I was transitioning from a kayak BACK to a canoe (I started off in a canoe before slipping into a kayak to run waterfalls for about 10 years), and wanted all the advice I could get from the old guard. I was like a puppy running around him, loading his boat, opening his door, standing around as he changed clothes. (Yea, it was probably a little weird, he's a bit of a legend in these parts.) We shared a beer and I asked him what I needed to do to achieve his grace and style in an open boat. He thought about it for a minute and then said: "Swim!"

"My god," he said, "how we used to swim. Sometimes every one of us would be swimming the same rapid at the same time. Don't know that I've ever met a rapid I didn't swim. We were probably crazy as shit but my, my what a time we had swimming."

Needless to say I took his advice quite literally and I swim a lot. Unfortunately I think he meant for me to probably get a little better at boating through my swims and I'm not sure that's happening, but anyway..............

That was the last time I saw Mr. Whaley out on the river. He had to give it up a short time later though for a few more years he would make an appearance at the annual Nelson County downriver race.

I have no idea what Bob Whaley has to do with anything you wrote, Mr. McCrea, but I suppose the amount of effort I put into swimming has enabled me to practice, time and again, recovering gear. And like Jack Nicklaus once said when he chipped a sand shot onto the green and it dropped into the hole, "I find the more I practice the luckier I get."

I find the more I paddle and the more I understand paddling, the more amazed I am at the size of the enormous giants I stand on.

Bob Whaley at 80:

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Epic report! Bob Haley's pic is stupendous! At 55, I wouldn't be doing anything near that. Don't think I'd be running the Grand Canyon either, but I am enjoying tremendously your fine report!
 
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I suppose the amount of effort I put into swimming has enabled me to practice, time and again, recovering gear.

I expect that some of the gear recovery success also comes from having your gear properly secured in the boat.

I have seen folks chase down far more than a helmet and spare paddle on mild river daytrips. The bigger the yardsale the more time stuff has to escape, and even with companion boaters helping corral the floaters some things were never found.
 
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Your expectations would be correct. I am meticulous and anal about not only securing gear in the canoe (low and tight, directly to the hull), but also position of said gear in boat. Position and security of gear for canoe camping/tripping is everything in my book. You can run all kinds of stuff if you know your gear will be waiting for you all in one place when you finally retrieve it after a big crash. So everything has a place and it takes me many trips in a new boat to find that place with regards to ease of packing, lightness of being, manueverability, trim, etc.

Several things, however, are often not tied down. I lose sponges constantly. And seeing how sponges take a little while to break in, I'm typically trying to break in my next sponge all the time, knowing that my current sponge will soon be lost. I sort of figure a sponge is to some degree a living thing that gets grown by the earth and I'm returning it... It's just one of those things I let float around. In Grand Canyon, on the recommendation of several open boaters who had paddled the Canyon and in lieu of an electric bilge pump (yes, I'm a fan of the electric bilge), I took an NRS hand pump. Granted, I should have tried it out beforehand but didn't actually purchase the pump until I arrived at my sister's in Phoenix. She took me out to their local REI to waste some money and play with cool toys and wander around looking for things "I had forgotten," (damn I'm glad I don't live next door to one of those stores), and I sort of remembered the suggestion and decided, last minute, to pick up the hand pump. It's one of those pull / push suck up the water on the pull squirt it out the top on the push pumps. I hated that ridiculous thing and don't understand how people could possibly find it efficient for a canoe. A sea kayak maybe where you can't get into the tight space but damn. Anyway, I didn't tie that hand pump in and when I watched it float away after I hit my one and only roll in the canyon--in a GC FOUR rapid called Doris (mile 138.5)--I was partially relieved at not having to deal with it anymore. I did sort of paddle a couple strokes after it but had water up to my gunnels so instead chose to bail with the gallon jug, which, as always, worked like a charm. When I finally got around to paddling downriver (the section of river around Doris keeps moving quickly through decent rapids for some miles downstream), I couldn't locate the pump. They might sink, I don't know. I wasn't heartbroken and in fact, thank you Colorado. Maybe a hand pump user on this site can enlighten me on the finer details of the elusive pump.

I've got a favorite summer spot on our backyard Class II run from which I can watch all the seasonal paddler yard sales as they come through a particularly tricky spot. (It's probably marginally mean on my end.) It's amazing to me the amount of gear that gets strewn all over the river. People will come up scrambling from an upset boat and frantically call out to me from my beer-sipping position on the rock, "My wallet! Get my wallet!" I'm like: really? You had your wallet sitting in the bottom of the boat? Not to mention fly rods and tackle boxes and guns and coolers full of beer (at that point I will jump from my rock into the river), and tents and cameras and watches and etc etc etc.

Then again, I should probably emphasize that most of the photos people take of me look something like this, so it behooves me to lash it in! Low and tight, baby, low and tight.

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FOUR. On Phantom Ranch

It's a bit surreal sitting in the Phantom Ranch Cantina. You're sitting in a plastic chair at a folding table in a pleasant, sunlit Park Service Lodge with large restaurant-style machines humming around you. You secretly wonder how the machines got here. You're drinking an IPA brewed in Flagstaff that is quite good, with several well developed layers of complimentary taste. You're also sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Of course everyone claims the beer travels by mule from the South Rim. It costs almost six dollars for one can, to which the cantina clerk shrugs and says, "It's the Grand Canyon."

Everything down at Phantom Ranch comes in by mule, so they say, so you naturally find yourself wondering how much comes in by helicopter, or raft, or Amazon drone. But the fact of the matter remains: you are indeed sitting 6,000 feet below the south rim (7,000 feet below the north) and there are no roads down which UPS or Fed Ex can travel. The goods are clearly delivered by some unusual means of transport and the overnight patrons of the Phantom Ranch Lodge, a night of which comes complete with bunk, mattress, sheet set and bathroom, can purchase an optional steak dinner for fifty-five dollars, delivered by mule.

(Coming upon the Black Bridge above Phantom Ranch.)

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You imagine you could probably drink about five Flagstaff IPAs and be well on your way towards good and drunk, probably even slam hammered, and hope the kids buying you beer stop at two, both of which they have already placed in front of you, side by side, as if you had ordered one to go. You are imagining twelve dollars and thinking that's a pretty steep drunk, but your palette, if not the logical side of your brain, is exceedingly grateful. You're on day seven of a three week trip through Grand Canyon, and you brought no beer.

The room is far from empty, and the hum of conversation sounds like music. A woman on your left plays a memory card game and her young boys play along, talking to each other as she leads them expectantly into what they should do, what they should think. The boys seem to be mostly ignoring her and you wonder why they are inside playing cards. An old man sits hunched over his coffee at the next table and leans to occasionally whisper to a woman who sits beside him. She then occasionally leans back and whispers into his ear. They seem friendly with each other and for a moment you feel a shallow wave of loneliness. Later, you'll see him outside with the mules, walking amongst them in their corral, slapping them on the rump and maybe, you'd like to imagine, enjoying their company like old friends. The people behind you read John Muir and flip through guide books of forested wilderness and sip beer with red faces. They look serious, like this might be the trek that makes or breaks their longtime careers. They do not smile when you walk by. Most everyone in the cantina looks to have spent the day walking from some great distance, dusty and sweaty, with the exception of the old weathered whispering man and woman in the corner; and most everyone in the cantina looks to be a walking billboard for high tech clothing, most of all you in your thousand dollar dry suit, unzipped and pulled down to your waist. You imagine you'd like to come back and hike the South Kaibab John Muir style, in a vest and tie, jacket slung over your shoulder, top hat, walking stick, pocket watch on a long silver chain.

You're at the bottom of Grand Canyon in what is known as the "main corridor." This is the corridor containing Bright Angel and Pipe Creeks, the Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails; the corridor in which a quick ten mile hike south leads from the Phantom Ranch Lodge to Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, open year round and into which nearly six million people drive year after year, spending a statistical average of four hours admiring what has been called the most sublime of all earthly spectacles, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. People hike the main corridor every day of the year.

Of course, far fewer visitors, less than 1%, achieve river's edge. And less than 0.5% of visitors run the river, which still turns out to be roughly 29,000 people a year. To you this stop at the Phantom Ranch Cantina represents mile 88.2 of Grand Canyon National Park, otherwise known as the stop at Boater’s Beach. You pulled into the beach an hour ago to fill up your containers from a spigot, to use a flush toilet, to shake off the spooky feeling of Upper Granite Gorge and enjoy, however briefly or with however many people, the way the sun hits the leaves of the Cottonwood trees and makes them glow yellow as if lit from within. And with the canyon walls reaching up into the blue sky on either side of a clear, tumbling stream, Phantom Ranch turns out to be a truly magical place. You wander the canyon in a daze.

You are also halfway listening to Martin ask you something about your diet on the river. He is one of a group of university students hiking the main corridor, which includes nine miles down Bright Angel, one mile up the river trail, and fourteen or so miles up the North Rim for an overnighter in the snow. Despite the sixty degree sunlight at Phantom Ranch, they've all got snowshoes strapped to their packs and want to use them, even if briefly, even if long enough to walk a few hundred yards onto the North Rim of Grand Canyon to set up a quick overnight camp. They're spending tonight at Bright Angel Campground, which requires a National Park Service permit, and then tomorrow heading up the North Kaibab to the next developed campsite, Cottonwood, for which they have also obtained an NPS permit. The following day they will rim out, as some call emerging from the canyon, and the North Rim is apparently covered in nine inches of snow with more expected. Thus they will be able to use their snowshoes and cross a short distance from the rim to another developed campsite but one that finally, blessedly, does not require a permit. One night partially free from regulation on the North Rim in the snow and they'll be coming back through to hike out South Kaibab: a quick south to north to south week for a group of college buddies.

You smile at all six of them, one at a time, looking for their eyes, in deep appreciation. This was a good day to run into them. You thank them for the beer and encourage them to keep this up through the years, to keep walking with each other, to keep checking up on these sorts of areas and enjoying them, to keep coming back. You will later remind them not to pee behind the Cottonwoods in the desert, even at night, that the desert cannot handle the pee or toothpaste or soap residue humans like to leave behind, that they ought to use the provided toilet or wander the half mile or so to the river. Bright Angel Campground has flush toilets and running water. But you will still be smiling with a slight buzz when you say this and you will say it as a friend, not as a police officer. It will make you feel old but also good, in that way that saying something of significance will often shock you and make you feel slightly warm. You'll also note they all seem to wander up to the restroom after that and no longer slink behind the tree. Later, after they’ve eaten, they will pull out journals and write, which will excite you to no end. You’ll find yourself jittering like a teacher, that unconscious twittering of the stomach, watching them write. You will not talk to them about their writing, only watch, expectantly, as if from their pages will come the future of us all. Everyone lives, you sometimes remind people after a few pints. But not everyone writes about living, not everyone processing living.

When you walk out of the cantina into the remaining sunlight your new friends will ask if you play cards, will invite you to share their campsite and join them in an evening game of cards. There is a picnic table, they point out, and a light they've constructed out of a waterproof headlamp and a jug of water, and a small flask of bourbon. They want you to stay. You will gladly accept their offer and will wander down to the beach to grab your sleeping bag and watch the darkness crawl through the wider canyon of the river. After the crowd of the cantina and the narrowness of Bright Angel Canyon, the Colorado will feel gigantic and spacious and quiet, despite that the river is never quiet. The river, in fact, constantly roars. You will sit down on the sand and lean against your boat and munch on some trailmix. Sleeping on the beach is against the law or you would certainly end up here. The river pushes through, wide and brown and fast, lapping against the rock on the far side and disappearing around a bend in small white waves, Bright Angel Rapid (3). You find yourself thinking back to Hance, six hours ago, and the run through the tight, dark gorge that followed. It's been a bit of a frightening day, and you are glad for tonight's company. You pull out your Paco Pad and sleeping bag, make sure your knots are tight, and wander back up the Phantom Ranch Trail.

The water jug glows a soft buttery yellow and you find yourself mildly hypnotized. You're working out what sort of light they've got dangling in there and sitting around a wooden picnic table playing 52-pickup: three cards, same suit, aiming for thirty-one, with a face-up discard and face-down draw pile. A small stainless steel flask occasionally passes through, apparently bottomless. You can't win and you're not really paying attention, but the company is pleasant and you are happy to be sitting with people. You're imagining four more Grand Canyon EIGHTS coming back to back tomorrow, and considering the possibility that you might swim them all. Doug Green swam eight times and right now you are oh for one on the biggies.

The kid with blond hair and earrings leans into the light and urges you to play a card. You apologize and throw down an ace of hearts. You need an ace of spades for thirty-one. The hikers were all walking around in the sand with their boots off when you met them at the Boater's Beach. They came over and dragged your boat up out of the water, asked you an endless stream of questions about your trip, and offered to buy you a beer from the cantina. You couldn't help but appreciate their youth and charm. They all attend university somewhere in Colorado and when they heard you had brought no beer, they bought you two, back to back, like healthy college students.

"Knock, knock. U.S. Park Ranger, may I come in?"

You turn to see a squat, shadowy woman in a tight, pulled down cap and thick cordura jacket standing just outside the campsite and leaning expectantly in. You wonder what might happen if you simply say no. But someone mumbles sure thing and she strides up to the table and into the light. She looks the group over and then points down to your Paco Pad. "Whose Paco?" she says. You look around at the group and suddenly feel nervous. She doesn't wait for an answer: "This ain't my first rodeo. No one carried that Paco from the rim. Someone here is running the river and I want to know who that Paco Pad belongs to."

Martin answers. "We're hiking through on our way to the North Rim."

"Everyone?"

"That’s my pad," you say. "I'm running the river. They invited me to crash here on their permit and that's what I'm doing."

She turns to Martin. "Your permit?" He nods and hands over his papers. "Six of you?" There are six of us sitting at the table. Derrick has already gone to bed.

And you suddenly want to be back on the water, back on your empty beaches between your canyon walls with the river of stars slowly spinning above you. But the daylight is gone and here you sit. Ranger Yurik is asking for your papers and driver's license and then you are stepping out into the privacy of the Phantom Ranch Trail so she can tell you privately that you cannot stay here, that you are breaking the regulations of your boater's permit--if in fact you have one--and that you should have asked her for permission. You look over at an empty campsite, take a deep, calming breath and close your eyes. "Fact is I probably would have been fine with you staying here," she admits. “We've got plenty of room. Had you asked."

You try to explain. "I didn’t realize camping on Martin’s permit would be a big deal—"

But she interrupts you: "Would you like me to make this a big deal?" And you both stare through the darkness at each other.

This will be one of those conversations that will only move in one direction regardless of anything you might say, and there is nothing you can say. You've broken the rules. You ask her if she would like for you to leave.

"Leave?" And she laughs, but it's not a real laugh. "You can't leave. It's dark. You certainly can't head downriver now. Let me see your driver's license and we'll talk in the morning." She continues, "But you need to stay in that site," and she points to the empty campsite beside Martin's. I can't have you sharing their camp." It's a stroke of genius on her part that you won't catch until later, and enables her to then write on your citation the next morning that you camped in Site 27A without a permit. Otherwise she'd be left explaining how you pirated a campsite that was, in fact, occupied by a permit holder.

She follows you back to your boat on the beach for your license and papers and tries to chitchat, asking you the usual questions about your trip. Alone? A canoe? Grand Canyon? Winter? At one point she offers up the word ballsy and you both chuckle at the apparent irony. You almost admire how she walks the trail without a headlamp, and you leave yours off as well. At another point she drops that you must be a badass, which almost stops you in the trail as you remember the joke you made with the check-in ranger when she acted concerned about the patch job on your stern. This cannot be coincidence, can it? You're certain the rangers share information about who might be coming through, about who is on the river. Maybe? Of course they share information. Stories. Could she be throwing your own joke back at you? You reach the beach starting to feel caught up in some weird and sticky conspiracy, some inner canyon bureaucratic prank, but seeing your old blue boat safely tied high and dry and noting the dropping water level still brings a smile. If the boat is okay, everything will be okay. The beach glows white though the moon has not yet risen over the canyon walls. You dig into your trash bag to pull out your papers with the thought that you are totally striking out with this woman. At least there is no wet slime in your trash and the pages appear pretty clean. You suspect a sack of weed will probably tumble from your dry box when you pull out your license, but thankfully it does not.

(Gloomy prospects in Granite Gorge.)

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In the morning, you will wake to a steady rain on your face and try to hunker deeper into your sleeping bag. People will be moving around you and their noise will no longer sound like music, it will sound like noise, like the banging of expensive pots onto expensive stoves to feed expensive diets directly beside your open ear. You'll find it impossible to lay still and will get up to stuff your wet bag and roll your wet pad and wander down to the wet sand in a kind of glum rain. Ranger Yurik will have taken your license for the night, to keep you from slipping off downstream under cover of darkness, and after repacking your wet gear into Bill's Bag and pulling your dry suit over wet fleece you will wander in a sort of daze back to her office below the cantina. You want to ask whether her wooden desk and chairs were all brought down by mule, but you don't. She explains that you will have the opportunity to voice your side of the story in court but that she must cite you and then hands you a packet of yellow paper. You stare down at a $280 ticket, blinking a few times to make sure you're reading it right. You look up at her and mention that you are on the same team, but she has printed out and highlighted a statute that you have clearly violated. Boaters are not to camp at Phantom Ranch.

"Yea," she finally says. "I think you were trying to pull one over on me and I don't like that."

You have the sudden urge, standing in the Ranger Station at Phantom Ranch, to explain to her how you swam a mile of the Colorado River yesterday at Hance Rapid and how poignantly alone you felt. How the Grand Canyon has been growing in intensity and your own psychological angst has been growing right along with it. How you're paddling an open canoe down some really big water. How this group of young college students swept into the story as if on cue, their toes in the sand, and lifted your spirits with a few beers, some pointed questions, a picnic table, a glowing water jug, and a game of cards. How you're staring down the open barrel of four big Grand Canyon rapids in the next ten miles of river and wondering about the possibility of swimming every one of them: you swam the first one, remember? How the rain outside is not helping. How you've spent a week on the beaches of Grand Canyon and not spray-painted a single rock. How you've got seven days worth of shit stuffed into a PVC pipe underneath your stern float bag. How you've got two weeks remaining and the whole thing is gigantic and you almost weren't prepared for the sheer scale of it all: the enormous size of everything. How you walked past at least three empty campsites. How the very farthest thing from your mind in all of the world might be trying to pull something over on Ranger Yurik at Phantom Ranch. How you honestly don't give enough of a shit about her to go through that much effort. How silly this entire exchange feels.

But instead you say nothing. You nod carefully and then carefully fold the yellow citation with the rest of your papers to eventually shove them back in with the rest of your Grand Canyon trash.

"Might be a good layover day," she says, referring to the rain outside.

You smile and nod. "Might be," you say. "I do have some big rapids to run today."

"Yea," she'll say and then smile wide. "But you're a badass."

And with the little twinkle in her eye you will realize she's mocking you. That she's heard the story from the check-in ranger and laughed over the crazy canoer with the beat up boat launching into Grand Canyon alone joking about being a badass. And that is when you will of a sudden feel like one. Because simultaneously and in tandem the entirety of the trip will wash over you in a sort of flood of relief and you will remember the enormous scale of this undertaking, the insignificance of your tiny boat in all this hugeness, the size of the river and the walls and the process and the place, all looming around you and before you and inside you, and the yellow ticket in your hand will bring it all back into focus. You will of a sudden be reminded that if you're going to buy beer in Grand Canyon the beer will be way too expensive, that if you're going to pay campground fees in Grand Canyon those fees will be enormous. And if you're going to run Grand Canyon alone in a canoe you're going to have to accept the term badass, however sarcastically it might get thrown around. In this way your stay at Bright Angel Campground will suddenly feel worth it, worth every penny and then some of Ranger Yurik's ridiculous, insignificant fine.

You will look down to hide your sudden smile and turn your motion into a little curtsy to Ranger Yurik. And when you look back up at her you will offer her a sly wink. "Thank you," you'll say. "My stay here at Bright Angel Campground was perfect. I'm going to go ahead and continue canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Colorado." And the two of you will share one more silent exchange before you spin on your heels and walk out into the rain. One more unspoken conversation before strolling out across the tiny metal bridge over a bubbling creek and then off down the Phantom Ranch Trail, skipping and clicking your heels in your mind, on your way toward some immense collision, wearing a smile as wide as the Canyon itself.

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You went river tripping, she went power tripping. Despite the authority thing going on, there's no doubt in my mind who was in charge of their own lives that day.
Really enjoying the read btw. Every time I dive in, I'm there. Thanks Uncle.
 
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